Maestro move: Osmo goes to no-go orchestra

Maestro move: Osmo goes to no-go orchestra


norman lebrecht

May 02, 2019

For the past five years, the Seoul Philharmonic has been a disaster zone with various managers at war with each other, the music director Myung Whun Chung making a public resignation and some staff members attempting suicide. All has been reported in Slipped Disc. Just search Seoul.

This morning the orchestra announced a new music director.

It’s Osmo Vänskä, the Finn who has spent the past 16 years as music director in Minnesota. Osmo, 66, intends to step down in 2022 but will continue to reside with his concertmaster wife in Minneapolis.

Seoul Philharmonic has has another change of management.

Annette Kang, its President and CEO says: ‘It is such a thrill to announce the appointment of Osmo Vänskä as our next Music Director. His relationship with the orchestra has produced some of the most electrifying concerts we’ve heard these last few years. It is clear that his music making with our musicians is grounded in deep mutual respect and admiration. The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra has incredible artistic energy and creativity, and I have no doubt that Osmo is the ideal leader to continue that momentum and move us into the next era. On behalf of our Board of Directors, musicians, and staff, I greatly look forward to welcoming him to our Philharmonic family. We know he will bring profound inspiration and warmth to our community.’

Osmo says: ‘It is a great pleasure to partner with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in this new leadership role. I look forward to working with the musicians and orchestra administration to create interesting programmes and inspiring concerts for the enthusiastic audiences of Seoul.’


  • fflambeau says:

    Osmo has done a terrific job in Minnesota.

    He held that orchestra together through difficult times. He’s a very good one.

    Notice a trend here with older maestros going to Asia where their age is not held against them? Osmo to Korea; Edo de Waart to Hong Kong and New Zealand. It also helps that there is a lot of money for classical music in Asia.

    • Emil says:

      Is age held against any conductor? I mean, Dutoit had a high-level post until the recent allegations emerged, Barenboim still has a job in Berlin, Blomstedt is still active, as are Muti, Haitink (health permitting), Jansons, etc.

      And Vänskä is 66 (the same age as Chailly, and younger than Kent Nagano and James Conlon, etc.) – hardly geriatric, especially by conductor standards.

      • michael says:

        I would say that age is a big factor these days. US orchestras in particular seem to want to promote young conductors as better and more exciting. If you look at the appointments in recent years I think you will find this to be the case. You mention Nagano, Chailly, and Conlon but how old were they when they got appointed? It seems like there is a select few who would have any chance of getting a music director job in North America at over 60 these days.

        • MacroV says:

          A lot of older conductors don’t want to bother with the non-conducting parts of the job. One reason why they would particularly avoid a U.S. orchestra.

        • Emil says:

          Ok, let’s take the ones I named above.
          Haitink: Principal Conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden 2002, 73 YO; Principal Conductor, CSO 2006, 77 YO (he declined MD). He was 58 when named to ROH in 1987 too.
          Charles Dutoit: Chief Conductor, Philadelphia 2008, 72 YO; Artistic Director, RPO 2009, 73 YO.
          Herbert Blomstedt: Kapellmeister, Leipzig Gewandhaus 1998, 71 YO
          James Conlon: MD, LA Opera 2006, 56 YO; Principal Conductor, RAI National Symphony Orchestra 2016, 66 YO
          Riccardo Chailly: MD, La Scala 2017, 64 YO; MD Lucerne Festival Orchestra 2016, 63 YO, extended in 2019.
          Kent Nagano: MD, OSM 2006, 55 YO; MD Bayerische Staatsoper 2006, 55 YO; GMD, Hamburg Opera 2015, 64 YO, extended in 2017 until 2025.
          Daniel Barenboim: Principal Guest, La Scala 2006, 64 YO, MD 2011, 69 YO. Possible renewal at the Berlin Staatsoper 2019, 76 YO. Declined NY Phil 2006/7, 64-65 YO.
          Mariss Jansons: MD Bayerische Rundfunksorchester 2003, 60 YO, 6 renewals since then (latest in 2018, 75 YO); MD, Royal Concertgebouw 2004, 61 YO.
          Riccardo Muti: MD, CSO 2008, 67 YO.
          One might add Christoph Eschenbach: MD Philadelphia 2003, 63 YO, MD NSO 2008, 68 YO, MD Konzerthausorchester Berlin 2019, 79 YO.

          Most of those are in Europe, granted, but you see plenty of conductors being offered jobs in North America at advanced ages (Nagano, Dutoit, Muti, Barenboim, Eschenbach, Haitink).

          So is there a movement towards younger conductors? Sure. But they’re for sure not squeezing out the old, who keep getting top jobs. If there’s one species I’d think is disappearing, it’s rather the middle-aged conductor…

    • Novagerio says:

      Notice a trend here with older maestros going to Asia where their age is not held against them? That’s where the big money is!

  • Andreas C. says:

    Vänskä’s years in Minnesota and the battles with disastrous managers he’s had to face there make him one of the best possible matches for this job, questionable as it may still be. Here’s hoping he can concentrate on the music.

    • fflambeau says:

      You make it sound like Minneapolis is the pits. Its not, and Vänskä will continue to live there. And he’s won numerous awards with Minny despite what you claim as “disastrous managers he’s had to face there” and he just took the orchestra to the Proms in London plus on a ground-breaking South African tour. He had his contract extended and he’s not being forced out.

      He’s something of a folk hero in the Twin Cities which has the largest Finnish population in the USA. I would guess it’s as cold there as it is in Helsinki, by the way.

      • Andreas C. says:

        Mismanagement in Minnesota led to the cancellation of an entire season, the resignation of several musicians and ultimately the near-resignation of Vänskä himself – it was these events I was referring to. Vänskä’s work as a conductor who diligently builds up the sound of his ensembles is well known and beyond reproach, and he’s a very good candidate for the greatest living Sibelian.

        • fflambeau says:

          Now I hear you. But wasn’t that “mismanagement” long ago and pretty much rejected by both the orchestra, Osmo, and the people of the Twin Cities?

      • justanobserver says:

        Osmo Vänskä did have to put up with terrible management in Minnesota, which led to one of the worst and longest orchestra strikes ever. He saw it through and picked up the pieces with the musicians and new management afterwards. He is a wonderful orchestra builder who won’t put up with nonsense and is all about the music. Judging from the places he has done the most work – Lahti, BBC Scottish, Minnesota – he is not casting around for the highest paid gig.

      • William Stahl says:

        Actually, the January average high and low temps are quite a bit colder in Minneapolis than Helsinki, which is a seaport.

        The MN Orchestra had terrible management for several years leading to the lockout. That leadership was forced out after a struggle and replaced by Kevin Smith who, by all accounts, was a godsend and drastically changed the culture there. Smith retired last year and was succeeded by Michelle Miller Burns. Not long after that, coincidentally or not, Osmo announced that he was leaving in 2022 after 19 years. The Seoul job starts next year. It seems an odd choice, given their history, but two other reputable conductors have appointments there now. They probably are paying Vanska quite a lot of money; there are direct flights from Minneapolis (where he will continue to live) to Seoul on Delta; and he should have a reasonably uncomplicated calendar for a while. He could do a lot worse.

  • msc says:

    I cannot imagine someone with as many options as he has choosing to take on such a position. I’d like to know the pay.

    • Emil says:

      Or, with an orchestra that is at a low point, but now with new management, if he has good working conditions, he has the opportunity to build something great, with the means to support it.
      It’s the difference between being Zidane (as manager) and Arsène Wenger: one enjoys being at the very top and is good at that; the other enjoys building something great. That does not mean one is better than the other, they’re different challenges.

    • Nick2 says:

      This assumption that it is merely money that is taking Vänskä to Seoul is so utterly ridiculous. Seoul is an exciting city. It has a wealth of excellent concert halls, an opera house, a public interested in classical music and the Seoul Philharmonic is a very fine orchestra. Yes, it went through difficult times thanks to dreadful managers. Now it seems on a much more even path. I suppose msc and others assume that Jaap van Zweden is keeping on his post with the Hong Kong Philharmonic also only for money. That also would be ridiculous. JvZ has developed the HKPO into a superb orchestra as their recent Ring cycle recording on Naxos illustrates. I cannot imagine conductors of that stature and status keeping or taking on orchestral posts just for cash. The quality of the orchestras and their potential is what makes the jobs attractive.

    • MSC says:

      Nothing against Seoul or South Korea — I only meant it is clearly going to be a challenging post on more than musical grounds. There are easier jobs he could get (and as someone that has been involved in academic bureaucracy for years, I cannot imagine taking on such a challenge at my age; if I were to move to a different department or faculty, I would look for a harmonious one). Sorry if I offended anyone.

  • Larry W says:

    Osmo is the perfect Seoul mate.

  • Russ says:

    He’s pretty good at some stuff but the orchestra plays just as well or better for Andrew Litton.

    • Isthatajoke? says:

      I want some of whatever you’re smoking, Russ. Litton’s lack of connection with the musicians and messy conducting was very apparent from the audience. Good riddance.

      • Russ says:

        Okay…Every performance I went to with him conducting was top notch. I heard the best Mahler 3 I have ever heard with him in 2005. Vanska’s Mahler, by contrast, seems completely disjointed.

      • Russ says:

        Did you ever criticize Georg Solti for being a “messy” conductor, by the way?

  • Russ says:

    If Osmo is as great as the Minnesotans claim he is, you would think his next position would be a step up not a lateral move (if not a step down).

    • William Stahl says:

      So go and enjoy Litton’s current job as the conductor of the NYC Ballet, or his new position as principal guest at the Singapore Phil. Litton recorded the Mahler 3 in Dallas, which seems to be what you are remembering; he never did that piece in Minnesota. Litton was the summer season lead conductor at the Minnesota Orchestra for several seasons. By the end of that term the orchestra players, based on their body language, were very ready to move on (as, apparently, were the Dallas players when he left that orchestra.) Litton conducted some repertoire well in Minnesota but to my ears he never seemed to approach the precision, dynamic range and subtleties that Vanska achieves routinely.

  • mick the knife says:

    van zweden in Hong Kong, Vanska in Seoul; big names in what used to be the backwaters. They are “placing their bets” on Asia for growth in the audience for classical music.

  • SPOfan4ever says:

    No-go orchestra? Disaster zone?

    Let me fill you in on recent happenings in Seoul.
    First of all, the city is home to an extremely vibrant classical music scene, with a young and enthusiastic audience. Seoul also possesses 2 top-notch orchestra halls, with possible plans for a 3rd as well. It is far from the classical wasteland that Norman and some commenters seem to view it as, and I’d argue that, in terms of the classical scene, the city tops any city in the states outside of NYC.
    The SPO just completed a successful and well-received Europe tour this past November, which included concerts in the KKL Luzern, and La Maison de la Radio. The orchestra also has plans for another international tour in the fall.
    Here is a list of guest conductors from 2018-2019:
    Vassily Sinaisky, Michael Francis, Antonio Mendez, Peter Eötvös, Asher Fisch, Vassily Petrenko, Jun Märkl, Marc Albrecht, Lionel Bringuier, Christian Vasquez, Fabien Gabel, Richard Egarr, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, John Stogards, Dima Slobodeniouk, Manfred Honeck, Ludovic Morlot, Andrey Boreyko, Thomas Dausgaard. In addition, they employ Thierry Fischer and Markus Stenz as Principal Guest Conductor and Conductor-in Residence, and Ian Bostridge(2018) and Christian Tetzlaff(2019) have been Artists-in-Residence as well. These are all artists who willingly decided to come, even after all the so-called “disaster zone” from 4 years ago, which “No one” always loves to bring up every chance he gets. You may all have varying opinions on the list of conductors, but the SPO is certainly not “No-go.”

    The wonderful musicians and staff, of whom the vast majority were all innocent bystanders during the problems caused by the ex-CEO, have worked tirelessly to move on and rebuild the reputation of the orchestra. I’d say, based on their recent successes and the new appointment of a well-respected MD, that they succeeded.
    No-go orchestra and disaster zone?? No way!

    A request to Norman and his obviously salty and jealous source: please move on!